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The Significant Experience Essay: More Ideas

In Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, First Person Application Essay, personal statement, Significant Experience Essay on July 12, 2011 at 7:47 pm

In my last post, I discussed what is know as The Significant Experience Essay, which appeared, among other places, in Prompt 1 of the Common Application Personal Statement for 2011-2012. Possibly you’ve done the prewriting exercise I recommended in the last post, and you may even now have an essay in hand and are looking for further assistance. I do provide proofreading and editing services through Mr. B’s Flying Essay Service (rush jobs) and Wordguild Writing Services, both remotely (via e-mail) and in person within a limited geographical area. See the About section of this blog site for more information on those services.  In this post I will discuss how to continue developing ideas for this Significant Experience Essay and will suggest a couple of places to look for examples of Significant Experience essays or descriptions.

In this post, I will offer some suggestions for those who may want to write about a significant personal experience  but have trouble coming up with much when asked to list their achievements, risks or ethical dilemmas. Refer to the last post for the details of this exercise.

I will restate the prompt and then examine each area it defines:

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

These three areas could, of course, be discussed in a single essay. Perhaps you did face an ethical dilemma, took a risk to deal with it and achieved something worthy as a result. This would be a nice trifecta.

On the other hand, you might have struggled to get more than a few things listed in the prewriting exercise (e.g, made soccer team, learned to swim butterfly, reached level 10 of Kill Corps, read the Grapes of Wrath despite myself). Perhaps feel like you’ve never experienced something like a real ethical dilemma. If so, this post is for you.

You may feel that your experiences are pretty limited, but by the age of four or five, have something to say about each of the topic areas raised by this prompt. By the time you’ve even reached kindergarten, you’ve already had the important human experiences: you’ve had to decide whether to tell a lie or not (ethics), conquered many challenges (Learning how to tie your shoes and to float in a pool are both pretty big achievements) and taken many risks.

So start by considering yourself: what things in your life make up your strongest memories. What matters to you is what matters here.

For you, reading the novel Grapes of Wrath when your Junior English teacher inflicted it on you might be a great accomplishment. But surely, you say, this is not worthy of an essay.

Why not? Other writers have, in recent years, produced books about reading the French author Marcel Proust and the the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. You don’t even have to have read Proust or Tolstoy to enjoy these books (Find How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton, and Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, by Nina Sankovitch, for examples of books about reading specific books).

But is this not an essay about books, then, you ask?  Of course it is, which makes it also suitable for something like the Harvard Supplemental Essay for 2011-2012, which asked for an essay about books, as did the Stanford 2011-2012 application.   Look for a post soon which examines how many different prompts overlap or can be addressed by the same essay–this is something you should note if you are applying to more than a few colleges.  One essay may be used to address several different prompts for different college applications, with little or no tinkering.  Of course, you will probably need several very different essays to start with–you should never turn in two essays on the same trip or the same readings, for example.

To continue with the Significant Experience essay prompt, risk topic:  perhaps you feel that you haven’t taken any real risks. The issue in this topic is defining what a risk is. Most people immediately think of physical risk, but psychological risks are everywhere, as you know if you’ve been turned down when you asked someone to a dance or you flubbed a line of a play in front of an audience. And any physically risky activity carries with it a psychological risk as well as the obvious chance of physical injury. Have you ever dropped an easy pass that would have won the game for your team and then had to deal with the disappointment–or anger–of teammates or coaches? Talk about a risk to your ego. In fact, your response to a defeat or an error you made when you took a risk is a good area for you to explore. Triumph is great, but tumbling into the pit of failure and climbing out again can be even more interesting and revealing in a college application essay.  Risk is everywhere.  Use it.

Another topic area is the ethical dilemma.  It should be relatively easy to come up with an experience for this one–ethical dilemmas present themselves every day. Ethics is a field of philosophy, but it is also a practical activity engaged in by every human living in a community. When have you had to decide between something you were taught–or felt instinctively–to be right or wrong? Small children know about this and make these decisions every time they are asked who made the mess or who broke the glass or who took the cookie. Not to mention the decisions students make about whether to study hard or to cheat on a test or assignment.

The trick in an essay on ethics is to discuss the matter with a sense of perspective and, hopefully, even humor. You may have chosen to do something unethical and then had to rectify it, which adds an element of drama to your narrative but which also adds an element of risk. You want to show, ultimately, that you are ethical. You also want to avoid appearing too uptight or self-righteous. Keep that in mind if you decide to write to this topic. A serious ethical breach may not be a wise topic here, unless you can show how you’ve changed.

Take some time to doodle on a piece of paper now if you were unable to work with the three column exercise in the last blog post and see what comes to mind when you explore your memories of risks, achievements and ethical dilemmas.

Evading the Cliche Step Two

In applying to college, college admission, college application, college essay, personal statement on June 29, 2011 at 5:17 pm

In recent posts I discussed college essay cliches, focusing on  a set of common essay types defined by former admissions officer and current admissions and college app essay guru Harry Bauld.

I concluded that series of posts with a suggestion for an exercise with one of the so-called cliche essays, The Trip Essay.  I asked that my college app readers complete an exercise focused on close description of specific people and places that they encountered on a trip–not on writing an essay or a narrative at this point but simply on extended paragraph descriptions of locations and individuals.  Please read my last two posts, at least, before working with the material in this post.

To continue, you now have multiple paragraphs of description.  You have not tried to impose some sort of narrative on it, have not drawn some sort of lesson from experience.   This is good.  Here’s why:  didactic writing is often bad writing.  If you don’t know what I am referring to, one way to divide writing into categories is to split it into writing which is intended to instruct (didactic) and writing which is intended to describe–or mirror–the world (mimetic).

Most trip essays have two aspects:  a description of places, people and events, and an explanation which might be subtitled lessons learned.  All kinds of things can go wrong in the trip essay, particularly when the writer moves from a perfectly competent–even evocative and fascinating– description of people and places to a kind of lecture showing the reader why all of this was significant.  At this point, The Trip Essay often takes a wrong turn.

I blame the current thrust of education for the problems which arise in The Trip Essay and in essays in general.  The fundamental problem is that teaching today is focused on measurable results and so everything taught must have a clear and quantifiable value.  In literature, this requires establishing some sort of moral or other lesson which can be tidily summed up in a thesis sentence.

This is not just limited to essays written by students in classrooms.  I see this also in the kind of first-person testimonials which have become popular in newspapers, blogs and commentaries.   The effect of this can be deadly, as in deadly dull  to literature in general and to  your college app essay in particular, especially  if you are one of those students who needs the essay to distinguish yourself from the mob.

Picture your college app eader groaning as she reaches the end of your essay and finds a moral.  Aesop did this pretty well, but after the original, the cliche is born.  Cliches are evidence of a lack of awareness and a lack of thought.  This is not what you want your college app essay to show about you.

Think about your own experience in dealing with literature.  How many good stories have been ruined for you when your teacher insisted that you needed to extract some sort of “life lesson” from your reading.  This term, by the way, is of fairly recent origin.  I was in college in the 80’s, and I don’t remember hearing this used with any frequency until the late 90’s.  The first time I did hear it, I remember thinking, life lessons?  What other kind is there?  Death lessons?

I filed this phrase along with  a boatload of other silly coinings, like preplanning (planning to plan?), and moved on, but since then life lessons has spread throughout the teaching of English like an oil slick, greasing up and drowning perfectly wonderful stories and turning everybody’s reading experience into a finger-wagging lecture.  And that’s just the problem.  You don’t want to be wagging your finger at your college app essay reader, nor do you want to be boring them (oh, I’m near the end of the essay, here’s the “life lesson” this kid gained by living among poor people in a foreign place).

In addition to the trap of moralizing or lecturing, these essays can also inspire a certain patronizing tone–those poor wretches, eating only beans and flatbread every morning.   The locals in your story become mere extras in your personal drama.   The worst of these essays actively criticize or mock local culture.

A particularly memorable example of this was written by a student who had gone on a church-sponsored mission to a South American country.  This student devoted considerable detail to the local diet, particular the habit the people had of poaching eggs in oil and serving these with beans.  Altogether he found this a greasy and disgusting nightmare which would not be consumed by any right-thinking person.  He concluded the essay by stating how much he had learned to appreciate his lifestyle in America.  Let me give you my lesson here straight:  you do not want to write an essay in which wretched, ignorant, poor people teach you to appreciate your logical and superior culture.  Which is what this gentleman in the example above did.

Let’s go back to those descriptive paragraphs you wrote.  Can you now combine or tie them together into some sort of descriptive piece, an essay which is not focused on you?    Can you become like a documentary camera, moving through the world you have sketched, without overt judgment, without talking about yourself beyond the basics,   along the lines of I went here because x and found . . ?  A full paragraph of  evocative description should follow.

The key to success here is to select details which are telling.   Describe selectively so that you show us what you learned or what the experience was like without making any overt judgments.  You will find this difficult, but this is the first step to writing a Trip Essay which is not the kind of essay that will cause the cliche warning light to start blinking.  Even better, you will not come across as The Ugly American Abroad.

How to Evade the Cliche in Your College Essay

In applying to college, college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on June 28, 2011 at 7:43 pm

In my previous post, I discussed one of the gurus of college admissions and the college essay, Harry Bauld.  Mr. Bauld described a set of essay types which he believes are “a noose” with which a college applicant can “hang” herself.  Scary.

What Bauld is after is a set of essay types which are commonly submitted.  Each takes the form of an extended cliche.  Among those essays condemned by Mr. Bauld is something he called “The Trip Essay.”  In this you describe a trip you went on and what you learned from it.  This is, in my experience, a very common type of essay used on college admissions, as is the “Jock Essay,” which is about what one learned in athletics, and the “Three D” essay, in which one describes or shows one’s  Drive, Determination and Discipline or some related set of positive attributes.

It doesn’t help that many college apps tend to push you toward some of these essays–”tell us something about yourself which isn’t immediately apparent,” or “describe an important situation or person from which you learned,” are examples of recent prompts of this nature.  And what if  you do want to write about a trip you took because it has been the most important experience of your life?  Can you not do this because Those Who Know say it is a bad idea, a sure dud?

Of course you can. Your challenge, however, is to avoid writing a cliche.   It’s not really the essay topic Mr. Bauld condemns so grimly as it is the way the essay is written and what it reveals about you.

Specifically, the problem lies in the kind of self-awareness you show and your audience’s reaction to your material.  Aristotle identified these two aspects of the rhetorical situation as ethos and pathos.  I discussed Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle at some length in an earlier post–see the archive for this, as a basic knowledge of these ideas is a strategic necessity for you.

So how can you write an essay about what you learned from a trip without writing a cliche or boring your audience?   The key is creating a lively narration and using detailed description.  You should show more than you tell.

Easy to say, but what do I mean?  Let’s start with a simple exercise.

This post continues with a series of exercises to develop application essay content, including experiments with point of view and use of detail.  It is related to previous posts on getting the college essay started.  

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College Essay No-No’s: What Not To Do in Your Personal Statement

In applying to college, college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on June 22, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Before I get to the gist, a short preface:  I hope that you followed my advice in the last prompt and did a considerable amount of writing before you arrived at this post.  I say this because I think that it is important to write without having that inner, critical voice whispering negative asides to you.  You should start the process by simply getting entire herds of words on the page without worrying too much about their quality.  Start with quantity.  This you will use as raw material, for we are far from done with this process.  ‘Nuff said.  On to the post.

Long ago, in a decade far away–specifically in 1986–the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd interviewed an Ivy League admissions officer named Harry Bauld. Bauld had worked at both Brown and Columbia universities before turning to teaching and writing. In this interview, and in the book which he wrote about the college essay, Bauld’s advice is still apt and shows just how little has changed since the 1980’s.

Bauld observes that the essay is most important for those in “the gray area.” He defines a student in this category as “not one whose academic numbers make you too easy to dismiss or too overwhelming to deny.” I would like to intervene here to point out that, given what the bell-shaped curve demonstrates,  he is talking to the majority of well-prepared high school seniors, most of whom are not immediately disqualified by low GPA and test scores but who are not running valedictory laps, either.

So if you are not one of the top half dozen students in a good high school, Bauld is talking to you. And what he says is: exercise care. In fact, Bauld argues that the college admissions essay can be the “ultimate noose with which a 17-year-old can hang himself.”  This post goes on to discuss in detail the kinds of essays that should be avoided and why, with examples.  

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So You Want To Write a College Essay

In applying to college, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on June 16, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Long ago, a man born in a peninsular region of far northeastern Greece left his provincial home to head for Athens, the New York of his day. Any young man who wanted to hit the big time went to Athens in this era, and if he were particularly bright and lucky, he would enter Plato’s Academy, as Aristotle did. It was here that Aristotle produced his first works, which are now known only through a few fragments, but it is also here that Aristotle first began to formulate his ideas about persuasion, ideas which were saved and passed on to us in the form of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

So what, you say; cut to the chase. What does this have to do with a bloody college essay?

In a word: plenty. Regardless of the prompt which you must address and the approach you take to this prompt, you are writing a persuasive piece when you write a college essay. And what is the purpose of persuasion, my friends? To change minds, to shift your application from the great, gray stacks of anonymous folders and computer files to the Arcadian vales of the admitted.

So back to Aristotle. He gave us a description of the persuasive situation which has been formalized as the Rhetorical Triangle, due to the three parts he identified: logos, ethos and pathos. What exactly the triangle is and means depends partly on which aspects of the description you emphasize.

Bear with me here while I explain. If some brilliant teacher has already indoctrinated you into the Aristotelian realm, read on anyway for the gems I will secret in this familiar landscape.

Ethos is you, or more specifically, your character. Who you are can help persuade your reader to accept your argument. Would you by more prone to listen to Sammy Slacker or William Wonderful? Would you want to admit a careful craftsman to your school or an inattentive layabout? Does your essay show care and craft? Dumb mistakes like homonym errors or poor grammar immediately cast doubt on your ethos. If you don’t seem to care enough to polish the essay, why should your reader care about you? What kind of voice speaks in your essay? Is your tone right? Do you establish your credentials or personal qualities?

Logos is the reasoning and language which conveys an argument. It is your essay as a physical block of words, your thought embodied as a verbal structure presenting certain ideas or proofs in a certain order which leads to certain conclusions. In a classical argument, this is the proofs used to demonstrate a proposition. But wait, you say. The prompt asked for a narrative–I had to write something about a time I did x or when I experienced y. Excellent, I respond. But in the personal statement or admissions essay situation, even a tale told is a kind of argument, the thesis of which is: let me attend your university. What did your story demonstrate and how did it demonstrate it?

Pathos relates most directly to your audience, to your effect on your audience. Do you engage your readers’ emotions? Do you establish a connection with them by giving them a story or an argument they can care about? Humor is invaluable here, but it can also backfire with depressing consequences.

Here is another way to look at these elements: ethos is most directly involved with you, the writer or speaker; it is both the “inner you” that shapes the essay and the way in which the essay reveals your character. Logos is the essay itself as a construct of thought, of vocabulary and syntax; pathos is the audience you address and the empathy, the emotional response you create in your audience.   It is this last element with which you must begin and end.

Let us consider your audience: an adult faced with stacks of folders and thousands of screens full of admissions information and essays. Imagine that person sitting in front of a computer screen eight, nine, ten hours a day, reading, reading, reading. Imagine that person with his own smart-alecky teenagers. Perhaps that person at one time was a classroom teacher.  Have you considered the person who will be reading your essay?

One of my clients, let’s call him Chuck B, responded to a common app prompt to tell something about himself which the rest of the information he submitted did not necessarily reveal. He began in this way:

I was already reciting the alphabet when I was two and I could read alone at the age of four. The summer I first picked up a basketball, I was able to do layups by the end of July,  and by the end of August, I could play horse with my older brother, who was a starting guard on a rec league team.  I didn’t start playing soccer until eighth grade, but they made me team captain in ninth grade, as I have been every year since. In a similar way, I picked up the guitar late, only two years ago, but in the last few months have started taking lessons in the classical Spanish style of playing, in addition to fronting a punk-oriented band.

Things just come easy to me, which is why I believe that I will quickly adapt to college and be an asset on your campus.

And so it went. For two more pages. While I was first reading this essay, I kept waiting for the punch line, for the glimmer of ironic humor or the linguistic wink that would allow me to laugh along with the writer at the blissful pomposity of the essay–could he leap over buildings with a single bound and outrun a speeding train?   It never came. He was not joking. He was also not aware of what an arrogant jackass he came across as.

As a matter of fact, Chuck is one of the sweetest young men I have ever taught and he is, in fact, as talented as he claims to be in this essay. But all a reader sees is a self-congratulating bozo. Because Chuck did not consider pathos, the nature and feelings of his audience, he also failed on a second leg of the triangle, ethos, for his true character was misrepresented despite the fact that he truthfully related a lifetime of skills and accomplishment packed into seventeen years.

This shows a certain kind of blindness which is very common, even among students who are otherwise self aware and intelligent. It also shows how, while you may emphasize one aspect of the rhetorical triangle over the others—perhaps you highlight logos as you lay out a logical and detailed solution to a great problem, or you demonstrate ethos as you describe how you volunteer every summer to build housing for those who need it—ultimately the triangle of ethos, logos and pathos are impossible to tease apart. You must write well in a way which appeals to your audience to show your best self.

Your next step is either to get going on an essay—show some ethos, some discipline,  and start now—or, if you have an essay, or several, get some feedback, preferably from an adult. Your sharpest and therefore most useful criticism will come from someone in the craft, a writer or a teacher of writing who is familiar with this particular kind of essay, but any adult who is a good reader can get you started. You need to see and hear the response of that older audience, you need to ask them for suggestions on the piece of writing you give them, and you need to find out what kind of person they see there on the page.

And remember: this is a process. Don’t cling to anything as somehow necessary and final. You will learn a lot about yourself and about the world by being open to criticism and reexamining yourself and your world. That’s what Aristotle did when he left home for Athens and entered the groves of Plato’s school.